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June 3, 2004

35 years later, she earns degree

From: Boston Globe, MA - Jun 3, 2004

Deaf-blind woman wins Kennedy Award

By Phil Santoro, Globe Correspondent | June 3, 2004

Not far from Janet Kyricos Marcous's Gloucester home you can watch the waves of the Atlantic Ocean crashing against the rocky coastline of Magnolia and hear their thunderous roar.

But she can't.

Deaf since birth and legally blind since the age of 30, Marcous nonetheless savors the ocean's offerings daily on her walks along Shore Road, inhaling the briny air, tasting its salt on her tongue, and feeling its chill on her cheeks. It brings her peace and continually reminds her of life's beauty. It's no-cost therapy for someone whose own life, which had been ugly for so long, becomes richer every day.

Including tomorrow. That's when Marcous, 56, grabs hold of something that's eluded her grasp for four decades -- a college diploma. Some never thought it was possible. Certainly not the school kids in Billerica who taunted her about her strange speech. Or her father, who kept her ''locked up" until she turned 21. Or the admissions officer at Emerson College, or the diploma-conferring deans at Burdett College, all of whom threw roadblocks in Marcous's path.

''I can't believe I did it," says Marcous with the glee of a giddy teenager as she anticipates taking to the stage tomorrow at the Bayside Expo Center, where she and some 1,450 graduates of the University of Massachusetts at Boston class of 2004 will receive their diplomas. ''It will be the biggest day of my life."

And while she's at it, she'll make another trip up to the stage to receive the university's most prestigious honor -- the John F. Kennedy Award for Academic Excellence. The award recognizes the recipient's academic and social achievements and his or her potential for significant contributions to society in the future. Not only is Marcous the first deaf-blind student to receive the award, she is the first member of the university's 30-year-old College of Public and Community Service to receive it.

Involved in social work for most of her life, Marcous left a 10-year career as a founder of the Deaf Blind Community Access Network to finally finish what she started 31 years earlier, enrolling in the fall of 1996 as a full-time student in UMass's College of Public and Community Service in pursuit of a bachelor's degree. While public service called her back, Marcous has been studying as a part-time student for the past seven years. Her days of walking through the Dorchester campus with a guard dog, cane, reader, and backpack are finally over.

''When I get on that stage I'm going to shout out a big PAH," says Marcous, referring to the American Sign Language expression for ''Finally Accomplished Tremendous Success." ''And I love to sing, so I may sing, 'The Impossible Dream,' " she says with a laugh, then sings it.

Her success, according to her friends and colleagues, has come as a result of a lifelong determination to overcome her disabilities and struggles and simply be happy.

The one thing he says he'll never forget about Marcous ''is her great optimism in overcoming great difficulties," says David Rubin, retired associate professor at UMass-Boston and Marcous's academic adviser. ''She has this wonderful spirit of being able to accomplish things no matter what the obstacle. She's always looking forward; never getting bogged down with the difficulties of being a deaf-blind person; never expressing a degree of self pity or helplessness; just always moving forward."

The middle child of Greek immigrant parents, Marcous wasn't diagnosed as being deaf until she was 4 years old, shortly before she moved from her parents' two-family home near Central Square in Cambridge to ''the boonies" of Billerica. From the age of 5 until she finished high school, therapists employed the ''forced oral method" to teach Marcous to speak, a taxing, exhaustive system of reading lips and making sounds. Those sounds caused her parents to remove her crib from the bedroom and into the hall and caused her schoolmates to mimic her speech. Teachers who were untrained and unfamiliar with deaf children treated her with disdain, she says. Her only source of comfort, she says, was in her brother Gerry, who was two years older and tried to shield Marcous from abuse and ridicule. ''He was my protector," she remembers.

Through hard work and a will to succeed, Marcous graduated from high school on time in June 1965. In her senior year, she faced what at the time was the biggest disappointment of her life, a rejection of her application to Emerson College because of her deafness.

''They conducted an audiological exam," Marcous explains, the results of which administrators determined were not acceptable for an incoming student. ''They told me 'Your speech isn't good enough to come here,' " Marcous remembers. ''I was just devastated."

Instead, she enrolled at Burdett College, where she says she earned enough credits to receive an associate's degree. But on graduation day, while her fellow classmates received their diplomas, she was handed a ''certificate of attendance." ''I couldn't believe it," she says. ''I did everything that was required, completed all of the work, and passed every course. I was shocked."

The experiences at Emerson and Burdett emboldened Marcous to fight discrimination and oppression. On the day she turned 21, she left her family and years of torment. That day she told her controlling father he could no longer legally prevent her from leaving. Thus began her new life of striving for independence.

Marcous left her job at the Harvard Law School placement office (''I used to tell the law school students where to go," she laughs), and headed for the University of California, Los Angeles, where she found comfort among students, staff, and a community of free spirits. ''This was the '60s; we were hippies and everyone was accepting of everyone," Marcous recalls. ''I loved it there. It was the best experience of my life. For the first time I realized that life could be good."

While attending classes at UCLA, Marcous worked at a halfway house of disabled military veterans, drug addicts, and homeless persons. Two years later found Marcous back with friends in Boston and Cambridge. She took a job at the New England Rehabilitation Center in Woburn, working as a rehab assistant in the spinal cord injury unit. She began to achieve some success as a certified muscular therapist in the center's new pain unit before it closed four years later.

''That experience really changed things for me in many ways," Marcous says. ''I realized I could really make a difference for people."

Shortly thereafter, she joined Women Inc. in Dorchester, counseling drug addicts. It was then that she first suspected she was losing her sight, passing up the overnight shift because she couldn't drive at night. Two years later, at the age of 30, Marcous faced the biggest setback of her life -- a diagnosis that she was suffering from retinitis pigmentosa, an inherited visual disorder that meant that she was gradually becoming blind.

''As a deaf person who cherishes visual life, this is like a death sentence," Marcous says. ''I felt it was the most unfair thing that could possibly happen."

Though severe depression set in, Marcous was buoyed by the support of a new love in her life, Charles Marcous, a counselor for a social service agency in Melrose, who a dozen years later would become her husband. ''His love and belief in me sustained me through the toughest moments," including the loss of her protective brother Gerry, who was killed by a drunk driver in 2000.

Since then, Marcous has immersed herself in a mission to advocate for people who are deaf and blind. She was codirector of the Deaf-Blind Contact Center; helped create the three-year-old Deafblind Community Access Network, winning legislative support for its funding; and, after taking courses in American Sign Language at Northeastern University was invited to be an instructor, where she designed and now teaches a course titled ''Introduction to the Deafblind Community, Culture and Communication." She is the first and only deaf-blind instructor in the school's history.

Tomorrow when Marcous accepts the JFK award, she'll address her classmates in brief remarks, some of which she will sign and some she will speak. Her message to the graduates is to become an ally of people who are oppressed or discriminated against.

''Those who have been oppressed need to lead the way toward social justice, however it is far more powerful to do so with our allies," she will say. ''Those of us who have been oppressed need to educate others, our allies. This process has to be mutually empowering in order for it to be a true change for social justice."

After graduation, Marcous says she will continue to teach; enroll in a master's degree program; and step up her work as an advocate for the deaf-blind community, in which there are some 600 people in Massachusetts.

She and one of her former students, Andrea L. Moore of Gloucester, who is an ASL interpreter, have formed the Cape Ann Communication Access Network, which raises awareness of issues that affect deaf-blind people.

And, she says, she'll continue her therapeutic walks along Shore Road.

© Copyright 2004 Globe Newspaper Company.